Sunday miscellany

I’m off to the UK for a week for the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I’ll talk about about the evidence for evolution (in a joint session with Nick Lane, author of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution), and — in a second venue — debate a theologian and a philosopher about the difference between belief in evolution and belief in God and religion.  The estimable Greg Mayer will be handling the website when I’m gone.

I want to mention three articles before I go:

First, in last week’s edition of Science and the Sacred (the venue for “leaders of the BioLogos Foundation”), Darrel Falk, a biologist at Point Loma Nazarene University and co-President of BioLogos, says goodbye to Francis Collins as a member of the Foundation.  He also takes a swipe at atheists for making their work harder. His words fall into the familiar pattern:

Why is it that a group concerned about the advancement of scientific ideals is our most vocal opponent? We support science, including the science of evolutionary biology. We think this incongruity implies that for them the issue is not the preservation of science in our fragile world. For them, the issue is that they want to use scientific data to justify their own political and philosophical ends. They are trying to present science as claiming something it does not claim to justify their nontheistic view of the world. They want to rid the world of philosophies grounded in theism. It is clear from their writing that they have taken no time to carefully study the host of philosophers who are theists or the elegant theology of some of the world’s finest minds.

But what I really want to point out is Falk’s inadvertent highlighting of the difference between science and faith.  For in his piece Falk considers the question, “is there any potential finding of science that would cause me to lose faith”?  The answer, of course, is no, NOTHING could ever make him abandon his Christianity. As he notes:

  1. Even if it turns out that our sense of right and wrong emerges through natural selection and other natural processes that can be explained through science–and I personally suspect this will be the case — it does not in any way imply the absence of a personal God. The Creator, after all, may well function through natural selection in some manner that the scientific process is not equipped to detect.
  2. Even if it turns out that the human mind emerges from molecules interacting in a manner that can all be explained through the physical properties of matter — which I also suspect is the case — this in no way implies the absence of a God whose existence is necessary for that mind to come into being. It also has nothing to say about whether there is a God who interacts mind-to-mind with those persons who seek that interaction. Even if the cell and the information it contains is explicable through natural processes, this does not in any way imply the absence of God’s Spirit “hovering” (Genesis 1:2) and thereby influence the outcome in some manner beyond exploration by scientific tools.
  3. Even the most contentious issues don’t undermine core tenets of evangelicalism. Many brilliant persons have reached the conclusion that there is good reason to believe in a God who works in creation, a God whose action is beyond the realm of scientific testability. (See this earlier posting for more detail.)

And here we have the real difference between faith and science, for, unlike faith, science can answer the question, “How would I know if I were wrong?”  And if you can’t answer that question, how can you know if you are right?

Second, Falk mentions with approbation a piece by Mooney and Kirshenbaum, called “A Call for Peace in the Science/Faith Battle,” that also appeared on the same BioLogos-sponsored website on July 27.  You don’t have to read this essay, because you already know what it says: the usual indictment of shrill atheists, P.Z.-and-Dawkins bashing, world without end.  What is interesting, though, is that although M&K have relentlessly touted on their website every essay promoting their book, they don’t seem to have mentioned this one.  (I may be wrong, but a search revealed nothing.) Why is that, I wonder?

Finally, over at Metamagician and The Hellfire Club, the ever-civil Russell Blackford has finally lost patience with the twins:

The Colgate Twins have – and should continue to have – every legal right to exhort us to self-censorship, but such self-censorship is not in the public interest, and it is morally reprehensible for them to urge it … rather than simply addressing our arguments on their merits. The twins have moved the debate to a meta-level where our actual arguments are not addressed and we are forced to defend our very right to put them. This is a time-wasting distraction. Worse, we are presented as vicious and violent; we are demonised, rather than being treated as reasonable, peaceful people with a valuable role to play in public debate on serious issues.

When faced by this, we quite properly respond with anger and contempt. There is an appropriate time for those emotions – a time when they are healthy – and this is one of them. The twins have shown that they are not just reasonable people who happen to disagree with us on important issues. That would be fine. But they have no rational arguments relating to the issues of substance; instead, they are purveyors of hatred and bigotry who choose to demonise opponents. They choose to treat us as beyond the pale of substantive discussion of our ideas. Well, we are entitled to say what we think of them; we are also entitled to go on making our substantive points, patiently, civilly, and reasonably, as we have done throughout.

It will take more than these two privileged nitwits with bright, toothy smiles to get us to shut up.

It’s with a light heart that I depart for that Blessed Plot.

37 Comments

  1. sailor1031
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Regarding religionist acceptance and promotion of science, I have observed that religionists start with god as the answer and then use science that does not conflict with, or can be made to somehow fit with this to actually support their religious view. This of course is what drives us to distraction because we want facts and theories (in the scientific meaning) that fit those facts and we oppose hypotheses unsupported by any facts and observations. This means we don’t accept any of the claims of religion as there are no facts, observations etc in religion, only dogmatic statements whose truth or otherwise is completely unknowable. This drives the religionists crazy. Religionists will not accept science where it conflicts with their religious view of the universe. There can be no common ground between these two camps.

    Regarding the gold dust twins, leaving aside the issue of accommodationism which is an enormous red herring, they are plainly wrong on at least two counts. First: any book search will reveal that numerous scientists have in fact written books on science specifically intended to present their material in a form that educated laypersons can understand. Einstein, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Bohr, Hawking come immediately to mind. Note I wrote “educated laypersons” and this is the root of the matter; our education systems have been dumbed down to produce a number of students who are not capable even of understanding a non-specialist presentation of the material. After all to understand relativity or quantum mechanics does require SOME mathematical knowledge even though no more than should be in the education of any high school graduate.
    Second: Traditionally scientists communicate their work to other scientists not to the public at large. It has traditionally been the function of the science journalist to communicate scientific findings and theories to the layperson. Since Mooney is, or claims to be, a science journalist surely it his job to overcome the scientific illiteracy he complains about by presenting science to the public in an understandable form.

    • Posted August 16, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      I think people might be more receptive to Mooney if he did what Ed Young or Carl Zimmer does: communicate on a wide variety of science on a regular basis. Sure he’ll cover some global warming or energy issue at the meta level every once in a while, but he’s essentially stopped covering new research years ago.

      • Matti K
        Posted August 16, 2009 at 10:00 am | Permalink

        I don’t think Mr. Mooney is actually very interested in science, like for example Myers, Dawkins and Coyne are.

        Mr. Mooney is interested only in scientific matters that have some connection to political controversies. And in such cases, the politics interests him much more than the science.

  2. JefFlyingV
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I see that the Darwin Explored discussion is sold out. Enjoy yourself.

    • JefFlyingV
      Posted August 16, 2009 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      I see two threads of thought through the Biologos website:
      1. The hijacking and coopting of science
      for theistic goals.
      2. The marginalization of all criticism
      of such goals.

      I still do not see how fundamentalism and science are compatible, one or the other will have to be changed to achieve that goal. I doubt the fundamentalists will change their tenets.

      • Posted August 16, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        It’s such a weird mixture of scientific explanations and Bible quotes. If you look through their “questions”, some are almost entirely answered by science, and others almost entirely argued by quoting scripture. But they’ll happily mix and match as well.

  3. Posted August 16, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I read the M&K piece on beliefnet anyway, and now I mostly wish I had listened to you that I needn’t read it. To get at least some use out of reading it, though, I’d like to address (and mock) a few points from their article here:

    So we decided to take a stand. It has cost us with some former allies, but in our new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, we said it strongly

    Look how brave M&K are, taking the stand against the evil New Atheists! They’ve even made personal sacrifices already! Oh, the heroism!

    The common ground, instead, must be science in its broadest sense–a shared body of facts we can all agree about, however we may differ about the spiritual.

    I think we’ve finally come to the real problem with M&K: they see science as a collection of facts, not as a process or a method. Of course we suspected this of M&K, but here they spell it out for us.

    That explains why they don’t get the arguments about incompatibility. Sure, the facts of science can be compatible with the claims of a particular religion. That doesn’t mean the scientific method is compatible with faith at all.

    That’s probably also why M&K miss that it isn’t just the scientific facts that are cast in doubt by the religious right, but in fact the entire scientific method. And you can’t accept the scientific facts, if you don’t accept the scientific method first.

    So how do you make people realize that science is superior to faith as a method for gaining knowledge? One way is to point out how unreliable faith is compared to science. But as long as M&K keep focusing on the scientific facts alone, they will never accept this.

    After all, the vast majority of Americas want nothing to do with this conflict. They want compromise, and compatibility.

    This made me laugh. So what if they do? That doesn’t mean their desires are realistic. For instance, it’s fair to say that most people don’t want to pay taxes, but still want the government to perform certain basic functions. Are those realistic desires? I’d say most people understand you can’t have it both ways. And neither can you put faith at an equal level with science.

    Next time you see the news media cover “science versus religion” as if it’s a battle, write or call in and say why that’s simplistic.

    Never mind that M&K themselves have been framing this like a battle throughout their writing…

    • H.H.
      Posted August 16, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      Deen, you nailed it:

      That’s probably also why M&K miss that it isn’t just the scientific facts that are cast in doubt by the religious right, but in fact the entire scientific method. And you can’t accept the scientific facts, if you don’t accept the scientific method first.

      So how do you make people realize that science is superior to faith as a method for gaining knowledge? One way is to point out how unreliable faith is compared to science. But as long as M&K keep focusing on the scientific facts alone, they will never accept this.

      Precisely. This is the “new atheist” argument in a nutshell. Why is it that I’ve never seen any accodationalist, faitheist, or theist even attempt to tackle this point?

      That explains why they don’t get the arguments about incompatibility.

      Oh, I don’t know. I’m inclined to believe S&K get the argument just fine. It’s been pointed out to them ad nauseam, after all. So I take their continued ignoring of this argument as evidence that they can’t adequately address it, so they’re forced to fall back on misdirection and evasion. It’s all they have.

      • Posted August 16, 2009 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        “So I take their continued ignoring of this argument as evidence that they can’t adequately address it, so they’re forced to fall back on misdirection and evasion. It’s all they have.”

        Yeah. I’ve been seeing a lot of that lately – from their admirers as well as from then. Keep those goalposts on the move.

      • Posted August 16, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, you’re probably right, they simply don’t want to understand it.

      • J.J.E.
        Posted August 16, 2009 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        I’m inclined to agree with H.H. I suspect that at the very least M&K aren’t having problems understanding the argument against compatibility. I suspect that a few things are at play:

        1) the believe that the majority of Americans wish that compatibility were true (and they may be right, too);
        2) catering to the majority of Americans is a safe way to reliably sell books and raise your media profile;
        3) M&K really do believe that inconvenient truths can set back the “cause” of scientific literacy (if they are said to advocate any cause).

        I think it is a perfect storm of self-promotion and pandering that sets them so firmly on the accommodationist path. Whether or not it is the most accurate way to present science’s interaction with superstition is another issue, which I think they just want to ignore. If they do answer that question in too much detail, then they’ll either: simply show how patronizing of the religious people they are; or, they’ll revert back to Mooney 2001, with a non-accommodationist stance. Better to just keep moving them posts!

    • Chayanov
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      “Look how brave M&K are, taking the stand against the evil New Atheists! They’ve even made personal sacrifices already! Oh, the heroism!”

      In my World Religions class this week, we had an interesting discussion going about how religious truths are given greater credibility when they come from suffering and sacrifice.

      And now I see this same attitude coming from M&K. They’re quick to point out that because they’ve suffered, their message must be something worth listening to. Except it’s having the opposite effect, because the people they’re talking to — those awful atheist scientists — are the ones who are mocking them.

      What they’re not getting is that revealed truth has no place in science. Period.

  4. Posted August 16, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    The anthropomorphized stupidity will exponentially grow–which I suspect will be the case.

  5. PrimeMate
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    If you refer to Scotland as that Blessed Plot you’ll have more to contend with than the God Squad.

  6. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    … and — in a second venue — debate a theologian and a philosopher about the difference between belief in evolution and belief in God and religion.

    Good luck with that. How’s the saying go? – “Like nailing Jell-O to the wall.”

  7. Posted August 16, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    That M&K piece is…remarkable.

    “The next time you find a scientist criticizing religious belief, email or call up and ask why it isn’t enough for us all to agree about the facts of science.”

    Well done, Twins! Tell people to bully and hassle any scientist who has the temerity to criticize religious belief – that’s liberal, that’s “tolerant,” that’s “respectful,” that’s the way to end all “this conflict.”

    “So all we need is for the “silent majority”–often diffident, often drowned out by the extremes on either side–to get louder.”

    Well done, Twins! Get the great bullying Majority to shout down the pesky “New” atheists – because of course the majority is always right and the minority is always wrong. So if you’d been writing in the 1950s you would have urged the “silent majority” to “get louder” in opposition to those pesky people demanding civil rights for black people? If you’d been writing in the late 60s and early 70s you would have urged the “silent majority” to “get louder” in opposition to those pesky people demanding equal rights for women?

    What a combination they are – stupidity, conformity, obstinacy, vanity, hostility, inconsistency, and blank inability to notice any of that.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted August 16, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      » Ophelia Benson:
      Well done, Twins!

      -n +t

      There, fixed it for you. You’re welcome. 🙂

  8. Peter Beattie
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    » The Dissembling Duo:
    Addressing Catholics, Myers writes, “Don’t confuse the fact that I find you and your church petty, foolish, twisted, and hateful to be a testimonial to the existence of your petty, foolish, twisted, hateful god.”

    You know, these guys are so concerned about PZ, Coyne, and Dawkins because they have come to realize that the Evidence-Based Atheists’ arguments work just as well against religion and creationism as against those who would acommodate those things with science. That really struck a nerve, and the Mooneys and Browns and Ruses have been screeching ever since.

    What it comes down to, though, is that (at least some of) the homeophatheists need an industrial-strength dose of the Take-No-Prisoners Atheists’ message to those who will not engage in honest debate, which is essentially the same message that Jon Stewart gave Sarah Palin.

    • Posted August 16, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      That’s a really important part of the problem indeed: the “New Atheists” arguments challenge the reliability of faith itself as a guiding principle in life. These arguments apply to fundamentalists and liberal/moderate believers alike.

      You could say that this means that the “New Atheists” will alienate the moderate believers by using these arguments. Should we therefore stop using them?

      But you could just as easily say that moderate believers are siding with the fundamentalists when they use the same counter-arguments (you know which ones I mean – science doesn’t know everything, can’t prove God doesn’t exist, etc etc). In that view, moderate theists are part of the problem.

      I’m leaning much more to the latter view: the unreliability of faith is a problem that I think needs to be addressed. I think the moderate believers should be able to handle a reasonable debate about this. And if not, then maybe they weren’t so moderate after all.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Darrell Falk seems fine with trivializing religion into mysticism. That is all fine and dandy. (But not harmless by any means.)

    However it still remains that if something “function” it has an observable effect by definition. This is the same as Ken Miller’s quantum woo. They have to choose their preferred religion: mysticism or theism.

    they want to use scientific data to justify their own political and philosophical ends. They are trying to present science as claiming something it does not claim

    Are they truly blind to the fact that this is a philosophical position? (And a failed one, at that.) Compartmentalization, indeed.

  10. Anthony
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    When I was still a Christian and a creationist Falk’s book “Coming to Peace with Science” is what convinced me that evolution was true. The problem is that Falk still accepts the reliability and inspiration of the Bible. It was subsequently studying the merits of critical views of the Bible (written by evangelical scholars Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks) that convinced me that there was no bases for my Christian faith. I subsequently rejected Christianity and eventually became an atheist.

    Evangelicals like Falk and Collins need to examine the evidence of the historical criticism of the Bible. Science is devastating to the faith, but as you can see with Collins and Falk, they can still try to accommodate (compartmentalize) their faith and their science, but historical criticism does not leave any basis for belief.

    Just my 2 cents.

  11. MelM
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    They want to rid the world of philosophies grounded in theism.

    Yes! The more fundamental–and critical– problem here is “accomodationism” between reason and religion. The conflict is between developing views of the world and of human life (including ethics) by integrating observable facts vs sponging drivel out of holy books and dogma. It’s reality/reason vs holy books/faith. Religion needs and perpetuates a culture of unreason.

  12. Posted August 16, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I for one would be very interested in the debate about “belief in God” vs. “belief in evolution.” The first phrase seems very straightforward, and the second is perplexing, at least to me.

    But then, I can be dense sometimes.

    • sailor1031
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      It is deliberately confused by the religionists because the term “belief” is used in different senses. Belief in god is a religious beief unsupported by facts. Belief in evolution is a rational acceptance of facts. Religionists use the term “theory” in the same way. Evolution theory is theory in the scientific sense, a rational, logical exposition of how observed facts can be explained. Creation theory is not theory it is mere failed hypothesis that does not address observed fact at all. This confusion in terminology is quite deliberate by the way.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      Another distinction is that theistic belief is 100% uncompromising and no facts will change it. Scientific belief is where the evidence supports a position but one can never be 100% certain and must be open to counter evidence in the future.

  13. Ken Pidcock
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Falk’s concession (“Even if it turns out that our sense of right and wrong emerges through natural selection…”) is interesting in light of the bhtv diavlog between Robert Wright and BioLogos principal Karl Giberson (#20267). Those inclined to regard Wright as accommodationist due to the silly afterword of his latest book (Hey, in an act of prostitution, responsibility belongs to the john…Templeton Foundation) should listen to it. Wright takes Giberson apart on the issue.

  14. MelM
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I think the need for ethics comes from facts such as that we have a fallible mind (a productof evolution) that can think and do just about anything. Some think “honor killing” is a virtue and many see it as evil. Some believe in altruisn; some don’t. Some believe that faith is a virtue; some think it’s a vice. Ethics is a way of sorting it all out; it’s something that, by nature, we have no way to escape doing. Thus, we get the need for ethics from evolution but the answers are philosophical (i.e. ideas).

  15. MelM
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    I.E., “stick to your physical sciences and let religion have metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and esthetics”. If we do this, the physical sciences and all other sciences (including history) will be corrupted.

  16. Posted August 16, 2009 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Even if it turns out that the human mind emerges from molecules interacting in a manner that can all be explained through the physical properties of matter — which I also suspect is the case — this in no way implies the absence of a God whose existence is necessary for that mind to come into being.

    It sure as hell implies – nay, screams – the lack of need for a god.

    Of course, it says the same of fairies.

  17. Posted August 16, 2009 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid for Chris and Sheril we’ve reached the stage when the only appropriate response to their actions is laughter.
    http://sneerreview.blogspot.com/2009/08/downfall-of-scientific-america.html

    • H.H.
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 12:38 am | Permalink

      Sigmund, that was great! The last line actually made me laugh out loud.

    • Hamilton Jacobi
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      Outstanding! Watching it seems to have caused some sort of internal injury, but I can’t stop myself from doing it again.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      I laughed and laughed and laughed.

    • Baby Jesus
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      Brilliant! Madeleine Bunting, the Banana Man, Dumbski, et al.!

      Baby Jesus approves!

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 17, 2009 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        Baby Jesus is a troll and a moron.

      • Baby Jesus
        Posted August 18, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        newenglandbob, I have reported you to my henchmen Ratzinger and Pat Robertson. Expect a phalanx of angry nuns AND 700 Club prayer bots to descend on you shortly.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 18, 2009 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        I hope they show up soon. I have floors that need mopping 🙂


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